Organizers say Saturday's prayer event meant to be non-political

Posted Wednesday, Aug. 03, 2011  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN - Organizers of Saturday's day-long Houston prayer service initiated by Gov. Rick Perry say it will be devoid of politics, but the event will nevertheless put a spotlight on Christian voters and social conservatives who intend to be a potent political force in the 2012 presidential elections.

And Perry, who often cites his Christian faith, could be a major beneficiary of that voting bloc if he enters the race, say several conservative leaders and analysts. "I think they will look very favorably on his candidacy," said the Rev. Pat Robertson, a Christian conservative leader and television evangelist who himself ran for president in 1988.

Called "The Response," the gathering in Houston's Reliant Stadium has provoked controversy because of what critics say are extremist views by some of its participants toward gays, Catholics and non-Christian faiths. The Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State is holding what it calls a "counter-event" at a Houston church on Friday night to protest Saturday's gathering.

Perry, who has said that he doesn't embrace all the views of the participants, describes the service as "a call to prayer for a nation in crisis." As many as 8,000 people, including representatives from Tarrant County, are registered to participate in seven hours of prayer, scripture readings and inspirational messages.

The Republican governor will be present for the duration of the 10 a.m.-to-5 p.m. event, said spokesman Mark Miner. Further details of Perry's participation are apparently still evolving, but a presidential announcement is definitely not on the table, said Miner.

Perry has been reaching out to political leaders and potential donors across the country and could announce a decision before the end of August. A number of polls have already put him in the upper-tier of Republican contenders, fanning speculation that he is all but certain to seek his party's presidential nomination.

Even with its non-political billing, "The Response" seems likely to further augment Perry's credentials among social conservatives, who have been a major part of his political base in Texas. Eric Bearse, spokesman for the event, said participation will stretch across a "diversity of ministries" that include - but is not limited to - evangelicals.

"This event is not about particular public policy issues," said Bearse. "It's about coming together and praying for the country."

At the same time, the event includes groups and individuals who have been influential in energizing grassroots conservatives.

The 'culture war'

The host organization is the American Family Association, which "has been on the frontlines of America's culture war" since 1977, the organization says on its Website.

Founded by United Methodist minister Donald E. Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., the non-profit describes itself as "one of the largest and most effective pro-family organizations" in the country and has taken a leadership role in national conservative campaigns against abortion and gay rights. It operates nearly 200 radio stations and has organized numerous boycotts against businesses and corporations that it believes is in violation of its some of its fundamental tenets.

Another prominent participant is David Lane, a conservative political activist from California who serves as national finance chairman for "The Response."

Lane, who has worked with the AFA, has been active since the 1990s in organizing pastors to become politically engaged. A brief description of Lane's activities on "The Response" Website credited him with helping increase turnout in "key battleground states" in 2010. It quoted Lane as saying: "What I do is spiritual. The by-product is political."

Lane has also been active in Texas, organizing the Texas Restoration Project that mobilized a network of pastors in advance of Perry's 2006 re-election race. The publicity-shy activist is reportedly organizing pastors in crucial states, including Iowa, in advance of the 2012 election.

"He's a very a good organizer and has tapped into a very large network of Christian leaders," said Bearse. Lane could not be reached for an interview.

David Barton of Aledo, CEO and Founder of WallBuilders, a national pro-family organization, is one of the event's "endorsers" and will be among those among those participating in the series of prayers.

The influence of the Christian Right has ebbed and flowed and the movement has become more decentralized in recent years. Republican strategists complained that as many as 4 million social conservatives were AWOL in the 2000 election, but a targeted effort by strategist Karl Rove and others four years later propelled them back into the fold in 2004 to help then-President George W. Bush win re-election over Democrat John Kerry.

Evangelical voters back in force

They turned out in record numbers in 2010 to fuel Republican victories in state and national elections that dealt a devastating blow to President Obama and fellow Democrats.

Exit polls showed that 28.8 million Christian conservatives - 32 percent of all voters - turned out last year, the highest recorded percentage of any election, said Barton. Although evangelicals, including Hispanics and African-Americans, also support Democrats, most vote Republicans. In 2010, Barton said, 77 percent voted for Republicans, up 7 percent from four years earlier.

Ralph Reed, who was the first executive director of the Christian Coalition and now heads another group, Faith and Freedom Coalition, says the "persistence of the evangelical vote" in the American electorate "is one of he underreported stories of the last several years."

"It's a huge constituency," he said.

As the longest-serving governor of the second largest state, with a strong record on social and fiscal conservatism, Perry could come into the race with strong support among evangelicals and Christian conservatives and could emerge as the front-runner among that bloc of voters, say experts.

"I think he'll look good," said Robertson, adding that the Texas governor "could be the next president." Reed said he believes Perry "should be able to make a very compelling appeal to those voters."

But, at the same time, Christian leaders say Perry wouldn't have an automatic lock on the vote, pointing out that Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has strong support among evangelicals while several other announced candidates have also reached out to that segment of the electorate. Robertson says he is "leaning toward" Bachmann at this stage of the race, noting that Perry "hasn't even declared" his candidacy.

Barton and Reed also observe that Christian conservatives, while united on some critical issues, don't constitute a "monolithic force" and may tend to fall behind different candidates, at least early in the primary season.

"I don't think they're necessarily homogenous in any way, shape or form," says Barton.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief, 512-476-4294

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